By Martin Pable, O.F.M. Cap.
I am not talking about numbers. Everyone knows there is an acute shortage of ordained priests, particularly in the Americas and in Western Europe. This essay is about the urgent necessity of the priestly role and function: to witness to the primacy of the spiritual and transcendent in human experience in an increasingly secularized world.
In such a world the priest can easily feel marginalized. Henri Nouwen once told about the time he was returning by ship from New York to Amsterdam. The ship entered the Dutch harbor in an extremely dense fog. The crew were shouting at each other from everywhere. Nouwen went to the top deck to observe the situation. He accidentally bumped into the captain, who barked at him, “For God’s sake, Father, get out of the way!”
Nouwen reflected on that incident. “Suddenly,” he said, “I became aware of how much of today’s world perceives us priests: We are ‘in the way’ of the secular society’s preoccupation with progress, with efficiency and productivity, with material and economic achievement. Compared with the stunning breakthroughs of modern science and technology, we are found wanting.”
And yet, any sober analysis of contemporary culture reveals a darker side. All the signs of progress noted above have not succeeded in reducing violence and crime, stemming the tide of abuse and neglect, or decreasing the incidence of mental illness, addiction and suicide. Even those who have achieved wealth, prominence and comfort often feel a gnawing emptiness in the pit of their soul.
Author Stephen Covey noted this in a memorable image. So many people, he says, have worked so hard to climb the ladder of success, only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall! There is nothing on the other side to quiet the restlessness of the soul. Karl Rahner also spoke of “the radical insufficiency of everything attainable.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner is widely known for his first book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People , wherein he struggled to understand why God permits innocent suffering. Less well known is his second book, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough . There he writes: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, for wealth, for comfort. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. No, our souls are hungry for meaning, for a sense that our lives matter, so that the world will be a little better for our having passed through it.”
All these writers are calling our attention to the spiritual dimension of human existence. This is what our contemporary culture, with all its emphasis on acquisition, on consumption, on pleasure-seeking and thrill-seeking, is in serious danger of losing. As one writer put it, “We are suffering from a severe hypoglycemia of the soul.”
If this diagnosis is correct, where is the remedy? A few years ago I was teaching a seminary course in Pastoral Counseling. I received notice about a lecture being offered locally entitled “Foundations and Future of Spiritual Therapy,” by psychologist Lewis Andrews. Since it was free, I decided to take my students to the lecture. I expected perhaps 60-80 people there. But we could barely find a parking place. The auditorium was filled with some 600 people: psychotherapists, social workers, nurses, family counselors, clergy of all denominations.
Dr. Andrews began his lecture by citing an amazing statistic reported by George Gallup: roughly 70% of Americans reported that they have had life-changing spiritual experiences. Andrews noted that we almost never get those kind of changes in traditional psychotherapy. He urged counselors and therapists not to ignore their clients’ spiritual concerns; but he admitted that most therapists feel inadequate to deal with these matters; they do not have the knowledge or the skills. He added that both Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl used to lament that “people are bringing concerns to therapists that they should be bringing to their clergy.”
What is that telling us? A simple, basic truth: we priests are needed, and desperately so. Who else will speak to people about their spiritual hunger, their brokenness and their need for healing, their sinfulness and need for forgiveness, their loneliness and their acceptance by the Christian community, their profound dignity of being loved and embraced by the God who calls them by name, and, finally, about the reality of death as their passing over into eternal life?
I am not saying that priests should take on the role of therapists. I am saying that we priests have a role and a mission that other professionals cannot fill. We are called to remind our people constantly of their spiritual nature and their spiritual gifts and their spiritual vocation and their spiritual destiny. We need to keep lifting their vision to what is transcendent, beyond the cultural idols and ideologies. I agree wholeheartedly with what the great Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey once wrote about “the absolute necessity for the role of the priest; without the priest I doubt if this civilization of ours can hold together.”
I have often said: we are not bad people; but we do have bad memories. We so easily forget — forget who we are, why we are here, what is truly important, who it is that loves us absolutely, and what is our final destiny. Those are questions that cannot be answered by science or by therapists or by politicians or by talk-show hosts or by pop stars. They are questions of the soul, “deep-down things,” as the poet Hopkins called them. And they are entrusted to us, “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” as St. Paul called us (1 Cor 4:1). That is why we need profound humility. We are “servants and stewards,” not owners and masters. The truths and mysteries we proclaim are God-given, not our own inventions: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5).
We also need to be rooted and grounded in prayer. Without a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, our witness to the primacy of the spiritual will ring hollow, like “noisy gongs and clashing cymbals” (1 Cor 13:1). We can be as forgetful as our people about “the things that really matter” (Phil 1:10). When people tell me about the good priests they know, they always say things like, “He has spiritual depth. When he speaks of God or Jesus or Mary, I sense he’s speaking of somebody he knows.”
Assuming that we as priests are energized by our relationship with Christ and by our sense of mission, what are some of the ways we can nourish the spiritual hunger of our people? First, by our preaching. We know that people are bombarded daily by the gospel of consumerism and ego-satisfaction. Spirit-filled, prophetic preaching will unmask the empty promises of the cultural gospel; at the same time, it will lift up a compelling alternative: the Good News revealed in the Sacred Scriptures and in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
We priests have an exciting narrative, a comforting yet challenging message, a healing medicine for hurt and wounded spirits. We have an abundance of illustrations from the stories in the Bible, from the lives of the saints, from our own experience and that of people we have come to know. The task is to connect these powerful truths with the experience of the people in the pews. As the great Protestant preacher Karl Barth once said: the preacher ought to prepare his sermon with one hand on the Bible and the other on the daily paper. I would add: and with awareness of his own experience and that of the people he has come to know.
I have listened to too many homilies that featured insightful explanations of the Biblical texts; but I kept waiting for some answer to: “So what? What is the connection with my/our lives?” I always remember my brother, married with nine children, who said to me one day: “Just remember, when you get up there to preach — I need to hear something that will help me get through the coming week!”
Another setting where we priests witness to the “Something More” in life is our celebration of the sacraments. To my amazement, a recent study found that what young adult Catholics value most about the Church is the sacraments. The study did not explain why. But I have a hunch it has to do with that fact that the sacraments are so visible, so earthy; yet they point us to those invisible mysteries that nourish our spirits.
When we take time at a baptism, for example, to comment briefly on each of the symbols; when we celebrate the Eucharist with dignity and reverence; when we listen carefully to our penitents and have a genuine dialogue with them about their desire for conversion; when we celebrate the sacrament of Anointing with compassion for the sick person and the anxious family — we are not just ritualizing. We are teaching, we are revealing the deeper truths within those simple gestures.
One more setting: those times when we are asked to counsel people in regard to important decisions or help them find meaning in their painful sufferings. After listening with genuine empathy and helping them consider the options open to them, we can make connections with the great truths of the Scriptures and the Church’s accumulated spiritual wisdom. And we spend some time with them in prayer — from our own heart — and invite them to pray also if they are so inclined.
In their everyday world, where else will people find this kind of experience? Movies and television will entertain them. Music concerts will excite them. Yoga and massage will relieve their stress temporarily. But who will listen attentively to their fears and hopes, their griefs and losses, their hurts and disappointments?
Who will speak to them about the unfailing love of God and His readiness to forgive, about the Christ who called himself the good shepherd and gave up His own life to reveal the depth of his care for us, about the One who promised to be with us in all our struggles and all our trials, and offers healing and strength when life beats us down? Yes, brothers, we are needed — today perhaps more than ever.
Let me conclude with those wonderful words of Pope Paul VI toward the end of his 1975 apostolic letter on evangelization:
Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing….And may the world of our time, which is searching — sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope — be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious; but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ and who are willing to risk their lives so that His kingdom may be proclaimed…in the midst of the world. TP
FATHER PABLE, O.F.M. Cap., a Capuchin friar of the Midwest Province, is adjunct professor at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, a well-known writer, teacher and conference speaker. He is the author of many books.